8 Nov 2011

Yoga (disambiguation)

The first time I practiced asana . . . 

I was about 11 years old. I’m forty-four now. Yoga has been an on-again, off-again love affair that came and went in my life, gaining and losing favour, depending on a variety of moves and changes. Yoga did not lead me to Hinduism, but when I began to study Vedanta, read the Upanishads, and otherwise intellectually lean towards embracing Sanātana Dharma, yoga was there to help tie everything together and to help turn what was initially a purely intellectual exercise into something more holistic, uniting body, mind and spirit.

Like many people who lived in the USA in the 1970s and 80s, ‘doing yoga’ meant practicing postures –- asanas –- in front of a TV tuned to PBS (the nation’s non-profit Public Broadcasting Service). There was this lovely, intelligent woman with a long, dark ponytail, often wearing a mono-coloured bodysuit, set atop a beige carpeted platform: Lilias Folan’s Lilias, Yoga and You ran for 20 years, from 1972 to 1992 and was influential in introducing millions to yoga in a non-sectarian, warm and friendly manner. I’ve recently watched some of the early episodes on YouTube and am amazed at how well the program has stood the test of time. The new generation of fitness-yoga stars may be flashier, more media savvy, patented, legally incorporated, portfolio-diversified and mass marketed, but Lilias’ traditional and effective practice set a standard and is still respected and going strong.
“I first began… in a darkened TV studio, teaching to a red light. But I never felt alone in that studio — I could always sense my unseen class. I pictured each student getting off the couch and sitting with me on the floor. Because I could not see my students, their comfort and safety in poses was always a prime concern. Going slowly through the postures, pulling them apart, and being clear about details and alignment became a style of teaching. The cameras used the body as a blackboard so the audience could see the poses and breathing from all angles. It was very important for me to explain everything I could about each pose and make sure I gave all the information needed to practice effectively and without injury. This was the beginning of Lilias yoga.”

Yoga is not Hinduism . . .
And Hinduism is not yoga. But to deny that the two are intimately linked –- or, I should say, yoked together –- is like spitting into the wind.

There are two popular ways of approaching yoga in the West today. One is as a purely physical, gym-exercise form of yoga. The other is happily spiritual or philosophically based, but it spends a good deal of time downplaying its bonds with Sanātana Dharma. These two trends may seem at odds, but one thing they have in common is their desire to thrive in the face of misunderstanding and unwarranted animosity.

“Yoga is demonic. If you just sign up for a little yoga class, you're signing up for a little demon class," said American pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church, Seattle. His words went global in October 2010, igniting a storm of controversy and bringing to wider attention a certain brand of long-simmering hostility. Far from being some dark and nefarious activity, “Yoga is the arresting of all mental activity,” as one book on Hinduism puts it. “It aims at nothing short of emptying the mind. [But] this void has been found threatening by some Christians, who fear that the mind will be filled by evil,” so they have consequently denounced it (Kantitkar and Cole, Hinduism: An Introduction, 259).

These denunciations are not actually assaults on a sequence of physical postures or breathing exercises. They are assaults on Hinduism (and other philosophies and faiths that practice yoga), which people like Pastor Driscoll fear is a force of darkness attempting to surreptitiously lure people away from their ‘natural’ beliefs. At the heart of such attacks is an entrenched ignorance about Hinduism itself, based in part on an inability to believe that Hindus do not, as a rule, proselytise –- not usually in any way, but certainly not slyly or aggressively. It is also based on stereotypes about the supposed ‘evils’ of polytheism and the purported ‘satanic’ nature of idolatry.

While there may be a sub-set of greater Hinduism that meets the simplified definition of polytheism propounded by the likes of Driscoll, mainstream Hinduism actually does not: Hindus believe in one God through the agency of many gods. Hindus believe there is one supreme spiritual Being, the one Absolute, called Brahman, who is “made manifest under different names and in various appearances” (Kantikar and Cole, 32). All these various appearances or deities of Hinduism are, in effect, aspects of the one Brahman. The murtis of Hinduism (often poorly translated as ‘idols’) are aids to worship, not objects of worship in themselves.

Yoga is one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, originating in ancient India. In and of itself, yoga is not a religious practice. It is a physical, mental and spiritual discipline that many Hindus (and Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Taoists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Wiccans, Druids, agnostics, atheists) utilise to achieve a variety of objectives. The Sanskrit root word ‘yuj’ means “the act of yoking or harnessing.”

For those of a non-theistic or non-spiritual bent, yoga can be utilised as a physical discipline without adherence to any doctrine or lifestyle. It can be the yoking of body, mind and intention toward the goal of greater health and longevity. It can, furthermore, help a practitioner sustain a more holistic view of the world and one’s place in it, aligning one’s sense of personal wholeness and union with the rest of humanity, other forms of life, and the environment.

For those of a spiritual disposition, yoga can provide a method for strengthening their progress along their own path, without severing them from the faith they follow. It can provide a pathway towards the yoking together of self and Self, or rather a union of the individual’s spirit and the supreme Spirit, whatever they believe that Spirit or God to be.

No one has to convert to practice yoga. Yoga is not out to surreptitiously change anyone’s faith. Yoga does not prescribe any religion or belief. But for those who wish it, yoga can support their belief system and bring them closer to whatever concept of God, gods, spirit or the universe gives them peace.

So, when I say I practice yoga . . .

I understand that not all Hindus do.

I understand that not all yogins are Hindu.

When I say ‘I do yoga’ (by which I mean traditional yoga, comprised of postures, breathing exercises, meditation, ethical self-reflection and the discipline of daily practice), I mean I have found a framework for exploring what I feel deeply, for quieting my mind long enough to listen to the natural flow of my breath, and for attaining a state of consciousness in which the True Self can be more fully revealed.

I understand that this is my path and it is not what yoga is for everyone.
But it will do just fine for me.


  1. Dear T.A.H.,

    This post is a wonderful, clear primer on hatha yoga and its distinction from Hinduism. Beautiful, concise and helpful.

    I request a post about Patañjali!

    Much love,

  2. Thank you, Toni... and your request is my command!

    I am reading the Isha Upanishad right now, so something on that might come first -- but, yes, indeed, I will prep something on Patanjali for sure :)

  3. Namaste,

    The word Hindu is a misnomer that has been assigned to people who use to take bath in the Indus river. The muslims would see the people bathing in the Indus River, and since they pronounced the word with an "H" sound the name "Hindus" stuck, but the people were followers of the Vedas. The word Hindu is not be be found any were in the Vedic scriptures.

    Unfortunately, today the term Hindu can mean too many different things to too many different people. If you took a poll of Indians who consider themselves "Hindus," there would probably be as many definitions and there are polls.

    There are basically two schools of thought; 1) personalist (vaisnavas), and 2) impersonalist (mayavadis).

    To fully understand what the meaning of Veda is one would find a wealth of information and definitive explanations in reading the Bhagavad Gita, Srimad Bhagavatam, Ramayana, Upanishads, and Vedanta Sutras.

  4. Hello Jadhavacarya,

    Thanks so much for finding my blog and commenting. I'm honoured.

    I really want to do an entire post on the word 'Hindu'. The etymology is fascinating. You're right, of course, that the word is derived from a mispronunciation & misapplication of the Sanskrit word 'Sindhu', the historic local name for the Indus River, which itself is mentioned in the Rig Veda. In English usage, by the late 18th/early 19th century the term became widely applied from the outside in, so to speak, and eventually it became a term used regularly when communicating with the 'outside' world.

    While many followers of the a various 'Hinduisms' (plural, not singular, is probably more accurate -- again, something that would make a good post all its own, to explore the variety of faiths, religions, non-faiths, non-religions that get subsumed under the term) prefer the term 'Sanātana Dharma', I find that the word 'Hindu' is still the regularly used term nowadays. Regardless of its history, it's the most recognisable term around now and the choice comes down to facility of communication vs. having to engage in a linguistics or history lesson each time a conversation is struck up. Something I have to work to avoid, geek that I am -- LOL -- so, I suppose that's why I use it, and here in England at least, it's the most widely used term by 'Hindus' for self-description.

    But, yes, again you are right, in India today there are 80,000 subcultures, over 325 languages, innumerable dialects, 25 written scripts... and then there are the millions living outside India, in Africa, the Americas, Europe, Australasia, whose traditions touch upon local traditions... and then add into the mix the company and 'cultures' of converts... it's got to be one of the world's most fascinating 'religious complex'. 'Religious complex' may indeed be that's a better way to discuss the phenomena that is 'Hinduism' than simply calling it 'a religion' or 'a divine philosophy'

    Anyway, all that, as I said, would make for a good post to get more discussion going.

    Thank you again for finding us here on Accidental Hindu and joining in our conversation.


  5. I checked availability in UK and I found CreateSpace doesn't distribute through Amazon's UK branch (they're working on it, it said). However, the CreateSpace eStore does; it says they ship globally. Try this URL: The book will also be available on Kindle in a couple of days and I don't think there is any problem about getting that. Of course, I'd rather you bought the paperback and not just because I would make a bigger royalty! I just think real books are more pleasant to read. Thanks for wanting to buy my book!

  6. Lorinda -- brilliant. So I will have a look at that website about global shipping, thank you. And, yes, I too like reading a good, solid, 'real' book (even though kindle texts do save on storage! -- lol -- space is tight where I live)

    And for anyone reading wondering what book we are talking about, Lorinda has authored and just gotten published a novella called "Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder: Report on the Anthropological Expedition to the Planet Known as Kal-fa" -- I'm a sci-fi/fantasy book fan and looking forward to reading it.

  7. Just discovered your answer! The Kindle version is available now - you would certainly get it quicker than waiting for CreateSpace to ship to UK! I don't really like the way the book appears on the Kindle - see my latest post on the blog: Some Curmudgeonly Quibbles about eReaders. But I'd love for you to buy the book either way! And thanks for the plug for the book! Is it correct for me to close by saying "Namaste"?

  8. T.A.H.
    I just saw this part on Yoga and you have very interesting and deep conviction on it. It might interest you, as I see here some enthusiasm for Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, to read or peruse my blog where I have writen sixteen chapters on it step by step. I would like to have your kind perusal. I also hope that others may also peruse and enlighten themselves. Here is the url:

    It is free and easily accessible.

  9. Great post! Although I would question the certainty in statements that all Hindus are monist. I would say most Hindus are monist in some way, but many are atheist or straight up polytheist.

  10. Good post on a topic that very much needs to be discussed more. Most of what is called yoga in the west is simply asana . More openness is necessary to understand Yoga as a generic term that refers not to a type of physical exercise but an individuals way of reconnecting to the source. I have posted my personal reflections on the connection between religion and yoga on my blog I feel that we need to have a broader and more inclusive understanding of term yoga. not the narrow limit version used in modern context.